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Wittgenstein, Duke Ellington and a Private Language

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Wittgenstein, Duke Ellington and a Private Language

I want to preface this discussion by saying it is kind of an addendum to a post from five years ago when I took up the issue of objective aesthetic value at some length. That post is called Philosophy and Aesthetics and I recommend you read it first. 

It has always seemed to be harder to talk about music than simply to play or listen to it. That shouldn't be surprising because once you get past, "wow" and "yetch," what in ethics is called the "boo-hoorah" theory, what can you say? Well, a lot, it turns out. I mention ethics because I have noticed, in investigating aesthetics, that it shares some interesting resonances with ethics or moral philosophy. They have both, at different times, resorted to a theory of subjectivism or relativism. Some have said that ethical values are nothing more than your personal opinion about right and wrong, They have no objective existence. Bertrand Russell criticized this by observing that "I cannot necessarily construct an argument to the contrary, but I refuse to believe that the only thing wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it!" And I refuse to believe that the only difference between good music and bad music is that I prefer one to the other. Speaking of categorizing music in this way, Duke Ellington is reported to have said that "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind."

But let me back up quite a ways and take a different approach to this. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was likely the most important philosopher of the 20th century. One of the things he is most known for is the "private language argument." This was discussed in his Philosophical Investigations. This work is divided into numbered paragraphs and the second part of #243 reads:

But is it also conceivable that there be a language in which a person could write down or give voice to his inner experiences--his feelings, moods, and so on--for his own use?--Well, can't we do so in our ordinary language?--But that is not what I mean. The words of this language are to refer to what only the speaker can know--to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.

There has been a remarkable amount of discussion over this and the following passages and the reason is that there are wide ranging implications for epistemology. Some of them are linguistic: a language in principle unintelligible to anyone but its originating user is impossible. Because: language, by its very nature, is both public and communal. The existence of the rules governing the use of language and making communication possible depends on agreement in human behaviour, such as uniformity in normal human reaction.

To take a simple example, itching is a typical human experience that we would say is a private sensation, not shared with others. But we have a word for it because we do actually share the experience of having an itch. Both you and I seem to have similar itching experiences that we describe in similar ways. We are both acquainted with the sensation. Similarly, though we experience a C major chord and dotted rhythms subjectively, they are not just private phenomena because we can point to them, notate them, and play them in the objective physical world. With some specific exceptions, music is not a private language that refers to what only the composer or performer can know, but it is a public manifestation that, even though it may be experienced in a variety of ways, is still an objective event.

Going back to the language issue, one reason this is so important is that we want to talk about music. We say something like "It was quite a shock for me to get to college and hear a jazz professor say that Duke Ellington was the best composer of the twentieth century. Not the best jazz composer, the best composer, period." This is from a comment by Ethan Hein. When I asked what this opinion was based on he responded: "It was based on his belief that jazz was the condition to which all other music aspires. That belief is a highly subjective one, but no more or less subjective than any other hierarchy of value one might choose to have." Ok, so all hierarchies of value are wholly subjective, just like all opinions about good and bad in morality. As Ethan says in another comment: "Musical quality is always dependent on a subjective value system."

What is the problem with that? Well, first off, Ethan or his professor can say "Duke Ellington is the greatest composer of the 20th century" and I could respond, "no, Dmitri Shostakovich is the greatest composer of the 20th century." But if all we are exchanging is hoorahs, if, in other words, these are nothing but subjective utterances, then the conversation is over as from here on it will just be sterile exchanges of the "so's yo momma" variety. In other words, unless we can talk about things that we actually can refer to objectively, things that are not a private language, we can't even have a conversation.

But I very much think we can have a conversation. First however, we have to know what we are talking about. Foggy generalities won't get us very far, we need specifics. Music is a wonderful way to explore our own feelings and moods, but an overwhelming quality of good music is that it appeals to a wide range of people--or maybe just very deeply to a small group of people! But good music is NOT a private language. Though it may explore very intimate feelings.

Yes, we can have a conversation, but only if you give up the idea that your completely subjective perceptions are absolute truth.

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht

Duke Ellington: Mood Indigo




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